Providing an educational experience helps visitor-serving organizations increase visitation – but not necessarily in the way that they might suspect.
This week, I would like to underscore an opportunity – and that opportunity is for cultural organizations (i.e. museums, zoos, aquariums, gardens, performing arts organizations, etc.) to successfully leverage their education value…by increasing their entertainment value.
Who said that they were at-odds in the first place?
These data do not represent a “win” for education in the infamous, ugly, and ongoing “education vs. entertainment” debate that still rages within some cultural organizations. They do not represent a “loss” for education value, either. This is a moment of data-informed real talk about how these two elements of the visitation experience work together and strengthen one another.
Data suggest that entertainment value motivates visitation, and education value justifies visitation. To succeed, cultural organizations need them both. To dive deeper into how education and entertainment values work together, let’s first share some findings…
People primarily visit cultural organizations to be entertained
The data above are from the National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study and are shown in scalar variables (i.e. to what degree respondents agree with the statement on a scale of 1 -100).
This outcome is not at all surprising. After all, data suggest that a visitor’s perceived “entertainment value” makes up a full 20% of their overall satisfaction! As it was well said by a participant in one of my Texas workshops last week, “People don’t wake up in the morning and think, ‘I want to be bored today.’”
If we generally allow that being bored stinks and makes organizations less impactful, it becomes easier to understand both that entertainment value is important and also that it does not necessarily come at the expense of substance or learning.
For context, these are very high numbers because it’s generally uncommon for diverse people (like those that make up the US population) to unilaterally agree on an issue. As a point of reference (and these are actual, contemporary values): “Ice cream tastes good” has a mean response value of 75 and “I love my mother” has a mean response value of 76. “Kittens are cute” comes in at a very high 83!
Because… well, kittens.
People do not primarily visit cultural organizations to be educated
I’ll pause for a moment to let the sad violins play a note or two…before I explain why this finding isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
These numbers represent a level of relative disagreement with the stated proposition. With scalar variables in the 40s, people aren’t simply ambivalent about visiting cultural organizations primarily to be educated – people don’t visit cultural organizations primarily to be educated!
As I’ve demonstrated with data before, however, “Learning something new and different” is an important justification for a visit. This matters, and it may serve as a clue to how organizations can leverage education value to drive visitation.
Cultural organizations provide an advantage for children
Check out the above data and let a smile sink in! Cultural organizations are very strongly perceived as providing an “edge” or “advantage” to a child’s academic and intellectual development. These numbers are enough to elevate this perception to superpower status!
Remember: Cultural organizations are more trusted than newspapers. While entertainment value motivates visitation and plays a critical role in visitor satisfaction, the “competitive advantage” aspect afforded by having strong education value is noteworthy.
Though over 60% of those who visit cultural organizations did so as a child, the takeaway from the above data isn’t necessarily to drop everything and build experiences or market primarily to kids. (Data suggest that organizations often benefit by marketing themselves to couples.) The takeaway here is this: People do not primarily visit cultural organizations to be educated, but cultural organizations are seen as effective educational entities.
And yet, there’s an opportunity to match this benefit up with potential behavior…
These numbers certainly aren’t “bad,” but they aren’t great, either. There’s certainly a level of agreement with the sentence, “A good way to spend a day off from school with your child is by visiting a(n) [cultural organization].” That said, it’s not the strong level of agreement that we might hope to see provided we know that these entities are so strongly believed to provide an edge in a child’s education.
Why isn’t visiting these organizations ranked more highly ranked as a “good way” to spend the day?
It might have something to do with the fact that this particular “edge” lies in the realm of education value, and education value is not a primary reason to visit a cultural organization.
Organizations can shift this and better leverage their education value superpowers in order to drive visitation, but it may mean better meeting a much higher ranked visitation prerequisite – being entertaining.
Do not aim to be less educational. Aim to be more entertaining.
I’ve recently read several articles about how it’s a good idea for cultural organizations to be less educational and more entertaining. (I’m not going to link to any of these articles because I think it’s unnecessary and unfair to select only one or two people/consulting entities to pick on.) Here are some questions/a mini rant:
On what planet is “be less educational” smart advice?! Why would cultural organizations risk their reputations and give up any hard-earned superpowers?! It flies in the face of data and it is shortsighted. For cultural organizations in particular, being good at your mission matters.
That said, this could be very good advice, if these folks would focus only on the second half of the recommendation: Cultural organizations need to be more entertaining.
The solution for cultural organizations is not in saying fewer smart things – it’s in saying smart things, smarter.
A) “Education” does not mean boring, and “entertainment” does not mean stupid.
It’s funny. Ask a layperson if something being educational means that it is likely to be boring, and they may say yes. Cultural professionals may disagree. Then, ask a cultural professional if something being entertaining means that it is likely to be stupid or lacking substance, and they may say yes. Laypeople may disagree.
Within the cultural industry, “entertainment” is sometimes regarded as a dirty word. But why? It seems to be because we consider it to be the enemy of our mission: education.
Being entertaining is a completely different thing than not being educational. They are not necessarily related. In fact, some on-site strategies that bump up entertainment value also bump up education value.
It is a good idea to be the opposite of boring.
B) Relevance lives in entertainment value.
Have you ever had an impactful educational experience that you would say was boring to you? Being entertained often involves a feeling of relevance and presence. Entertainment experience is about connection – to the moment, to the content, to the experience. In that sense, shouldn’t education be entertaining? Aren’t creating connections our very aim in our educational endeavors?
Remember that “entertainment value” is in the eye of a living and breathing human being. There may be an element of connection (and entertainment) in every a-ha moment. In a sense, entertainment value may be considered the opposite of having no substance.
IMPACTS measures metrics related to 224 visitor-serving organizations, and some of them are museums or historical sites founded upon sad histories that are anything but conventionally “entertaining.” And yet, being perceived as entertaining is equally important for these organizations. This is because “entertainment” aligns more with being relevant, meaningful, or anchoring individuals to the present more than it necessarily means getting people to laugh out loud (for instance).
Entertainment value is necessarily relevant. If something were completely irrelevant, it arguably couldn’t be entertaining.
What if cultural professionals considered that being educational means being inspiring (i.e. inspiring thought), and being entertaining means being connective? Might we have more integrated conversations about the relationship between these two visitor experience values?
Be less educational? Nah. That’s where cultural organizations shine.
Be more entertaining? Yes! This is critical and I can think of just the starting point upon which to build strong, entertainment values: Our educational experiences.